Fall 2018

Geology of the American West: Critical Landscapes in Earth Science and in American Cultural Debate

Listed in: First Year Seminar, as FYSE-125


Tekla A. Harms (Section 01)


Iconic and yet dramatically diverse landscapes characterize the American West, including snow-capped mountain ranges, deep canyons, monuments of stone, geyser fields, and vast lava-capped plateaus, in marked contrast to the more subdued lands east of the high plains. Can a geologic history of the continent be constructed from the evidence in these lands? If so, how might awareness of that history influence the nation of people who live there? By engaging with the rocks and landscapes of the West, late nineteenth century geological and topographic expeditions produced transformational insights about a range of earth processes and the time scales on which such processes operate. Their reports sketched out a backstory of our continent as a dynamic, sometimes violent, and sometimes quiescent land with a deep history. Expedition reports, in turn, influenced contemporary American views of Americanness.

This seminar will introduce the geology of notable western landscapes, focusing our attention on the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Rocky Mountains, and the Columbia Plateau. We will investigate the geology of these parklands in concert with the writings of those nineteenth century surveyors, explorers, and scientists whose accounts introduced the west to the American populace: John Wesley Powell, Nathaniel P. Langford, John C. Fremont, and Clarence King. We will also join the debate surrounding some unresolved problems in western geology by critically assessing cutting-edge data and interpretations.

We will, indeed, cover principles of geology in this course, so no prior study of geology is necessary. Through in-class discussion and frequent reading and writing assignments, students will experience the scientific method of constructing understanding from analysis of observations; develop habits of reading thoughtfully; experiment with formulating and substantiating a position based on critical assessment of a variety of inputs; and practice expressing understanding or uncertainty, and agreement or disagreement in concise and clear writing and through lucid dialog.

Fall semester. Professor Harms.

FYSE 125 - L/D

Section 01
Tu 11:30 AM - 12:50 PM BEBU 311
Th 11:30 AM - 12:50 PM BEBU 311


2024-25: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2017, Fall 2018